Recently Nathan Tyree interviewed Riley Michael Parker, the author of the amazing chapbook Our Beloved 26th. What follows is the first half of that interview:
Nathan Tyree: After reading Our Beloved 26th, the first question that comes to mind is: how long did you work in the corporate world and how badly did it scar you?
Riley Michael Parker: To tell the truth, I have never worked in an office, corporate or otherwise. OB26th has no grounding in reality - corporate men just seemed like something worth talking about. I wish I could give you something a bit more concrete about how it all came about, but it's hard to explain the genesis of my own work. I don't want to say that anything just came to me, because I was constantly making decisions, throwing away ideas and restructuring stories, but I can't exactly rationalize any of it. I just write what I feel like writing.
NT: Do you think that modern corporate culture bears a strong resemblance to the "wild west"?
RMP: I really don't know much of anything about modern corporate culture. Most of my writing is fairly minimalistic, which lends itself very well to writing about things you know nothing about. With OB26th I just wanted to write about fragile men, all of them having been pushed by society, or perhaps their fathers, into an over-romanticized male world – a place filled with hatred, and backstabbing, and oneupmanship – and then loving every minute of it. I wanted to write about men trying to live up to impossible standards – the ideals created by Hollywood and these last few generations of men – attempting to embody the modern mythology of what a man really is. Nothing is like the “wild west”. Not even the wild west. My assumption is that the corporate world is full of lonely, scared little boys who want to impress their fathers, men who long to be understood and accepted by their peers, just like the men you find in the rest of the world. A lot of these men probably don't like women, because as it seems, so few do. I think it is entirely possible that most men turn out to be assholes because they feel like that's what is expected from them. But all of that aside, I love westerns, and I love the stereotypes that they promote, never mind how fantastical all of it is. I wish that modern corporate culture closely resembled the wild west. Wouldn't that be delightful? Wouldn't you just love to see men in shirts and ties carrying revolvers, with flasks of whiskey attached to their belts, with spurs on their boots and chew in their bottom lips, the color of their ties a bold declaration of which gang they were affiliated? Yeah, well, me too.
NT: Some of the stories in your book have a strong sense of surrealism and absurdism. Do you feel that you have been influenced by those schools (on a sub note, are you at all a fan of Luis Bunel, David Lynch, Takashi Miike, David Cronenberg or others of their ilk (assuming that they can be lumped into a single group, which on second thought is a pretty shallow assumption on my part))?
RMP: I never attended college past the one lone term, nor did I partake in any kind of formal literature studies, so I can't say that I was really influenced by the schools of absurdism or surrealism, because as schools of literature, I honestly know next to nothing about them. I am simply not aware, in the academic world, which authors are categorized into those two factions. There are writers I like with a knack for surrealism, and I am influenced by them, but I am neither out to join nor start a movement of writers, but rather just to tell little stories. I think my taste for the absurd and surreal stretches back to my early childhood. I was really into horror films as a kid, and though I had a fairly clear-cut idea of what parts of them were based in reality and what parts could never really happen, in the dark of night, lying in bed, there was always a part of me that was expecting these creatures to crawl out from the VCR and into my living room, and then to either kill me or befriend me, and in a way, I was hoping for either. I didn't have a lot of friends as a kid, and a lot of things weren't exactly what you would call ideal, and so I spent a lot of time wishing that I could create my own reality from the ground up; that I could live in a place with both people and monsters, with living furniture and talking animals; a place where I could go and do and be anything I wanted. And yet despite spending so much of my energy focussing on these bizarre little worlds, I didn't want to give up on reality completely. I was very fond of adults as a child, and I envied the complexity of their lives. I longed to join them, to engage with other people on a deeper level, and to establish complicated relationships like the ones I was always seeing in movies. I knew that once I got the whole pesky childhood thing out of the way that things would become a lot more interesting, and lucky for me, they have. I think that in a lot of my writing I try to find a balance between these two things, a sort of amalgamation of the complex relationships that form between individuals and these absurd little situations that lie just beyond the boundaries of reality, these abstract ideas that I am currently, and have been since childhood, so enthralled by.
As far as the second part of your question goes, I don't really like the filmmakers you have mentioned, and have not seen a great deal of their work because of it. I think that you could make a convincing argument towards lumping those directors together, but I have a limited knowledge of them. I am more into the films of Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Haneke, Wes Anderson, et cetera, but my favorite film is Buffalo '66 by Vincent Gallo.
NT: Which writers have had the greatest influence on you?
RMP: I would have to say Vonnegut and Brautigan, because of the way that they present their stories. I love the way that everything is so fast, so short, and so to the point. All of the chapters in their novels could stand on their own as short stories, which is something that I greatly admire. Have you read Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut? On one level it is a very simple story about a man's life, but there is so much going on in that book, so many little stories pieced together to make something so sweeping and grand. Everyone knows about Breakfast of Champions, but that novel was the first book I read that really made me feel that there were authors that wrote with me in mind. I read a lot of Stephen King as a kid, and I still like some his work, but the characters far more than the plots. He really is such a bad writer sometimes. Have you ever read Carrie? I haven't. I put it down after six pages. But if you get a chance, read Rage, the Bachman book about the school shooting, because it is nothing but character development, and it is wonderful. It was also pulled off the shelves over a decade ago, upon King's request, because of violence that keeps happening in schools. But you should try and find a used copy, because it is worth reading. My other main influence, Richard Brautigan, is someone I only discovered a few years ago, but he has had an enormous impact on me. You can tell from his novels that he had a history in poetry, because he always ignored so much of the traditional literature structure and took his stories to really interesting, and often bizarre places. Brautigan really opened my eyes to what fiction can be if you are willing to take it far enough, but more importantly, his books showed me how much can be taken away from a story and still have it work.
NT: You are currently working (we hear) on a series of stories that could be deemed horror. Is genre a concern of yours? That is, do feel constrained to remain within a single genre, or do you just write whatever you feel the need to write and say fuck what people think? Do you ever fear being pigeon-holed by what you have written in the past?
RMP: The stories I've been writing have horror themes, but they are not necessarily of the horror genre, as there is little to no suspense or tension. It's all flash fiction, so there isn't really any time to build anything up, but rather just to give the reader a glimpse into someone's life, and then to leave again. Blink in, then blink out. But the stories are all about murder and witchcraft, haunted houses and demon possession, so I tend to describe them as horror, because I don't know what else to say. You could also describe these stories as jokes that aren't jokes, because that's a lot of what I've been writing this last year and a half; little set-ups with just a sliver of a punchline that most people don't think is funny. And genre is not a concern of mine. I am interested in characters first and foremost, but also in the structure of sentences, in themes, and in ideology, and when I'm writing that's all I think about. It isn't until I am about to put something out, the few times a year that I write something that I think is worth showing people, that I consider how it might be marketed. It was in the works to have the release for the horror book (tentatively titled Witches) in a random basement, with a lot of occult paraphernalia around, and candles mounted to mason jars positioned carefully throughout the room, the jars themselves full of maggots and rotten meat, but my friends talked me out of it. Nobody but me thought the idea was all that funny. I work in film and visual art in addition to writing, and so I have this desire to give everything a very elaborate presentation, but with certain ideas it is hard to find support. Go figure.
NT: Ballard, Beckett or Burroughs? Why? Are the boys kept on a leash an explicit allusion to Waiting for Godot, or am I reading too much into that?
RMP: I haven't read a single book by any of those authors, save fifteen pages or so of Ballard's Crash, but it wasn't for me, so I put it down.
NT: How do you like your steak?
RMP: Cut thick. Pink in the middle. Served with asparagus.
NT: Do you feel the need to flee? Does it feel like life has you caged in? Why are you staying in one place so long?
RMP: I like the option to flee more than the actual fleeing. It is nice to be able to drop everything and have a two month adventure, but it isn't really a possibility for me anymore. I pay rent now, and I have a job, and I have people who rely on me to make movies, so I am more or less stuck. I was homeless for a little over a year, and so I floated around a lot, meeting people and doing a lot of writing. It was a lot of fun. My only addictions at the time were reading and coffee, both of which are socially acceptable and neither are all-consuming, so my time on the street was actually fairly pleasant, especially since I spent so few nights on the actual street. If you're going to be homeless, be charming! Make friends! Tell jokes! These days I am fairly unlikable, so I don't think I could ever travel that way again. Who would take me in, even for a night? Also, living that way is exhausting. You are the perpetual guest, and so you must always be so polite – washing dishes, keeping quiet, watching whatever your host wants to watch without complaint... It's dreadful at times. But I was able to see some wonderful cities, and meet some fascinating people, and as comfortable as I am here in Portland, there is a part of me that misses that feeling of not knowing what tomorrow brings; a part of me that wants to disappear.
NT: Do you consider yourself a satirist?
RMP: No, not really. There are satirical elements to a lot of the things I write, but I don't want to get too specific when labeling myself. I am a writer, and a filmmaker, and a visual artist, and that's about as much as I can commit to. I try not to analyze my own work, or to say it is certain things and not other things. Anyone can take from it what they will. I will admit, however, that I think everything is funny. There is nothing I can think of that I am unwilling to make fun of. In that sense, I suppose I am a satirist, if not always in my writing, then always as a person.